The world’s first digital art museum.
Children slide down a digitized ramp, on which fruits bloom and disappear as it senses their descent. A young girl inquisitively stands in a field of suspended lamps that intuitively turn on in cascade-like fashion, triggered by her presence. Graceful digital sunflowers bend and swoon as a viewer steps up and interacts with a giant screen.
This isn’t Alice in Wonderland (despite looking like an outtake from it) but instead an exhibit in Tokyo’s Odaiba that has been playing with visitor perception and reinventing a visit to the museum since it opened in the summer of 2018. Called the MORI Building Digital Art Museum: teamLab Borderless, it has reframed the museum experience by grouping digitized artwork to form a “borderless” world, according to the collective. The artwork moves through rooms, communicates with itself and influences and interacts with visitors in an elegant, anticipatory way that has left the millions who’ve experienced it breathless and enchanted.
CEO Toshiyuki Inoko founded the teamLab collective in 2001 with the intent of creating a space that could connect creative people and act as a “lab” for their activities. “By putting ourselves in such an environment to create something, we wanted to deepen our thoughts and insights, simply to keep creating,” the collective told Archive Magazine. (teamLab insists that all of its comments be attributed to the group and not to individual members.)
The aim, teamLab said, is to create a new experience for visitors to its exhibits, and, through such experience, to explore being human.
Comprising global computer scientists, engineers, designers and artists, teamLab has created technology that has led to stunning exhibitions in several countries that defy convention and delight Instagrammers. The collective is shaking up the museum game in an unprecedented way, engaging viewers with unexpected outcomes and ensuring no two visits are ever the same.
“Our artwork is participatory by making it interactive,” teamLab said to Archive.
A behavioral offshoot of the interactive nature of video games, smartphones and the internet, teamLab Borderless focuses on the interactive experience with its large-scale digitized art. A type of interactivity it pursues is that a person’s physical presence transforms the work, whether or not that person intends to do so.
Digital technology is fundamental to the exhibit’s vision and the aim has always been to change people’s standards of value and contribute to societal progress. “That hasn’t changed since the very start,” the collective has said. However, while teamLab has loved the power of digital technology and creativity since its early days, it initially had neither the opportunity to present the ideas nor the ability to fund the artists and the projects.
So, it took part in various projects, like the creation of Graffiti Nature in the Ward Village at the Honolulu Biennial in May 2017, where the collective encouraged participants to draw flowers and other objects on pieces of paper, which were then scanned and animated on large digital screens. More exhibits like this followed and audiences became more interested and aware of teamLab’s vision and technology.
Of course, the concept of using the audience as a catalyst for art is not new. John Cage did precisely this in his now-famous piece 4’33”, which premiered at Maverick Concert Hall in Woodstock, New York, in 1952. At the performance, the piano virtuoso David Tudor did nothing for the eponymous length of time except to open and close the piano lid, thereby allowing ambient sounds to become part of the piece. The audience politely applauded, not knowing what else to do. While it was not the first piece of its kind to be performed, it was certainly one of the most memorable in a genre known as “silent music.”
“What [the audience] thought was silence, because they didn’t know how to listen, was full of accidental sounds,” Cage said of his performance. “You could hear the wind stirring outside during the first movement. During the second, raindrops began pattering the roof, and during the third the people themselves made all kinds of interesting sounds as they talked or walked out.”
Historically, art has been static: paintings don’t walk off the walls, sculptures remain fixed in their locations. But the teamLab exhibit at Odaiba has reimagined a gallery that is truly dynamic, where other viewers become part of the experience. “You feel very lucky if you happen to be alone at an exhibition,” teamLab has said. But to create an experience that turns the presence of random visitors into something positive is what the collective continuously aims for. “We want people to be involved with the world. As much as possible, we want to re-think the boundary between the world and oneself.”
In other words, your presence as a spectator in an exhibit means something—both to the exhibit, and to the artist. In a sense, the collective is also trying to change the way we view crowded cities, because, in modern urban centers, the presence of others can be overwhelming, unpleasant even. When you think of a crowded subway car or maneuvering around people walking to work during rush hour, you can neither understand nor control them. You tolerate and accept them. “That’s because the city doesn’t transform due to the presence of you or others,” noted teamLab.
Future city projects include Crystal Forest Square in Shenzhen, China, which will transform a plaza using crystal pillars made from a collection of points of light. The interactivity here is that the user can change and interact with these light pillars, even by using their smartphone—in a way, making the experience completely their own. An exhibit will also be shown at the Academy of Motion Pictures in Los Angeles later in 2020.
The allure of transforming cities is at the core of the collective’s mission because a city feels “full of boundaries, and the illusion that boundaries have always existed,” teamLab said. At its Reversible Rotation exhibit, held in November 2019 in Melbourne, Australia, visitors were able to see spatial Japanese calligraphy (called sho) rotating in the artwork space using what the collective describes as “cold light.” In April 2019, a temporary exhibit called Tomorrow Is the Question debuted at the ARoS museum in Aarhus, Denmark, wherein the collective used art as a facilitator and catalyst to highlight the climate challenges currently facing us, taking the U.N.’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals as a point of departure.
For teamLab’s exhibits, artworks are created by a team of hands-on experts through “a continuous process of creation and thinking.” For the Odaiba exhibit, teamLab utilized 107,000 square feet of labyrinthine floor space featuring 520 computers and 470 projectors created specifically for the permanent museum in the MORI Building. (In comparison, the new Museum of Modern Art in New York has a newly renovated art-filled space of 175,000 square feet, spread over six stories.)
DIGITIZATION OF ART AS BEAUTY
In most of the exhibits, nature motifs are paramount, as is the exploration of universal concepts of beauty.
“Our intention is to change people’s standard of beauty, even if it requires a great deal of time,” said teamLab. With nature, the approach is also somewhat philosophical. “At some point in history, humans saw flowers and thought of them as beautiful.”
Once the overall concept of the artwork is set, the collective gathers in person to refine the project with specialized members related to the work. For example, Forest of Flowers and People: Lost, Immersed and Reborn, exhibited in Tokyo in 2017, employed a CG animator for the flowers, a 3D software programmer, an architect, an engineer who designed the projector equipment and a software programmer who localized and integrated the dozens of projectors within the space.
The artistic collective believes that “art” as we know it is a modern phenomenon; the way modern artists created their own flowers and expanded the notion of “beauty” with those flowers is considered a modern artistic expression. (The impressionist paintings of Cezanne and Monet are a few such examples of art influenced by nature.)
While sunflowers, stars and light collide, combust, bloom, explode and enrapt the audience in so many dynamic ways in these mesmerizing installations, the ideology is clear: the artistic representation of nature can be bolder with digital installations. Nature does not need to be the “sunflowers in a vase” of a Van Gogh painting. It can be done on giant interactive screens and floors that come alive and move with viewers’ motions. In this sense, teamLab’s museum debut in Odaiba has changed the definition of art.
The American contemporary art gallery Pace exhibited teamLab’s Transcending Boundaries at its London location in 2017, and the showing positioned the gallery as a forward-thinking space where experimentation is encouraged. At an earlier teamLab show at Pace’s Palo Alto, California, location in 2016, more than 200,000 visitors came to see the exhibit.
And while the Odaiba installation is permanent, teamLab has been busy with other, temporary shows, like A Forest Where Gods Live: Earth Music&Ecology, which opened in the summer of 2019 in the 5.4-million-square-foot Mifuneyama Rakuen park at Takeo Onsen on the island of Kyushu in Japan. Featuring sacred trees dating back 300 years, this special park, created in 1856, became a canvas that teamLab transformed into a giant immersive experience—showing how nature can become art.
While it was not teamLab’s first outdoor exhibition, the work is considered important as the unique setting of Mifuneyama Rakuen allowed the artists to explore a continuity of life that they could not always perceive in their day-to-day existence. Exploring the forest, the shapes of the giant rocks and caves, allowed teamLab to better perceive and understand the overwhelming amount of time it took for such natural phenomena to form.
NEXT STOP: CHINA
Summer 2019 marked the first anniversary of both the MORI Building museum and teamLab Planets Tokyo. Together, the two exhibits brought in more than 3.5 million visitors in just that one year. The teamLab Borderless show alone welcomed 2.3 million of those visitors, exceeding the number of attendees at the Van Gogh Museum in the Netherlands and setting a record for a single-artist museum in one year. By comparison, the Picasso Museum in Barcelona pulled in about 950,000 visitors, and the Dalí Theatre-Museum in Figueres, Spain, brought in 1.1 million.
teamLab’s figures are impressive, but the momentum and interest for these supersized immersive digital creations is just starting. The collective’s newest exhibit, opened in November 2019 in Shanghai, features several monumental artworks, including an interactive piece consisting of countless resonating lamps that respond to the presence of people. When a person stands close to a lamp, it shines brightly and emits a color, then the light begins to spread to the two nearest lamps. From there, this specific quality of light is transmitted to other lamps, creating a continuous wave that eventually returns to its starting point. While to the casual viewer the lamps seem scattered randomly, there is a single connecting line that can be drawn through this wave.
The arrangement of the lamps is mathematically determined, according to teamLab. A large number of approaches were evaluated that took into account the variation and distribution in height, direction and the smoothness of the three-dimensional light trajectory.
“When we look at the world through an intellectual lens, problems seem overflowing,” the collective philosophizes. “And when you see the problems that we cannot solve, you just feel hopeless. In this era, I think what’s more important, at least as an artist, is to seek out and affirm an idealistic part of humanity and present an idea of the future.” Through its impressive digital installations, teamLab hopes to do just that: to create a world that involves people and makes them feel important, empowered and influential.